A young man is destined for great things. It’s such a mundane setup that we rarely take a second look. Within fantasy and science fiction, it is even more expected. That is why Dune has always stood out from the crowd. Frank Herbert’s novel is filled with political intrigue between houses at war and wonderful worlds that feel fully inhabited. Yet at the center of it is Paul Atreides (TimothÃ©e Chalamet) and his journey to find his own path in life despite many hands guiding him through it. . As much a philosophical tale of coming of age as an epic of political science fiction and fantastic history, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is a wonder to behold and fully realizes a universe which, beyond its massive scale and otherworldly creations, is subject to the same human problems that exist today.
Those unfamiliar with Herbert’s novel may find themselves at a slight disadvantage when they start watching Dune. Villeneuve follows the same path as Peter Jackson with The Lord of the Rings adaptations and don’t hold the audience’s hand until words like “Gom Jabbar”, “Kwisatz Haderach” and “Shai-Hulud” are embedded in their brains before moving on. Instead, Villeneuve lets those terms take over the audience, sinking in if they do but passing away if they don’t. The term is not crucial to understand right away, it’s what it represents that matters most.
Dune follows Paul as he and the rest of House Atreides leave their home planet of Caladan to accept stewardship of planet Arrakis and oversee the making of the galaxy’s most important resource: spices. Complications ensue when they arrive on the planet and find that the previous owners, House Harkonnen, have left them with a barely usable spice operation. As House Atreides attempts to get its mining operation back on track, plans are being implemented that will have massive ramifications for everyone involved.
When people talk about Dune they always evoke the devotion of history to the spice. Why are spices so important? Well, the movie gives a succinct explanation: it fuels everything. Transplanted into modern society, this resource could just as easily be oil or water. Something to hoard and privatize. Villeneuve doesn’t spend too much time on the importance of spices, other than reiterating how crucial it is for everything to go well for the universe to run smoothly.
Instead, where Villeneuve focuses Dune is on Paul and the many forces trying to guide him in different directions. He is the heir to the throne and will succeed his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), but is also trained by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to harness the power of the ‘voice’ and hopefully. the, become the chosen one, or the Kwisatz Haderach, as instructed by the all-female religious organization known as Bene Gesserit. Then there are those dreams that Paul continues to have of a daughter (Zendaya) on Arrakis that suggests a different path than the two he is led on.
There is a reason Dune was widely seen as unsuitable and it’s immediately evident when trying to explain the plot to someone. It’s a story with many characters, all of whom have important roles to play, even if their character seems minor. It’s the kind of complex web where it’s almost impossible to follow completely because everyone has their own motivations that guide them. When you factor in that the opening title card for this film reads “Dune Part One,” it’s clear Villeneuve had to make the conscious decision to split the book into two parts during the film adaptation. There’s just no way you can take such a dense book and turn it into one movie without losing so much of its intent (see: David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation).
Once such a decision is made, then comes how the film will be framed. This is the magic of Dune. There’s this more grandiose narrative initiated behind the scenes by the Emperor of the Imperium that forces House Harkonnen and House Atreides to take each other by the throat. The spectacle and the scale extend from this conflict, giving Dune its massive reach and its astonishing decorations. These range from the first time Paul encounters a sandworm, to armies fighting melee to a sandstorm. All accompanied by a dizzying score by Hans Zimmer which presents so much variety without losing the scope of the film.
These sets also lend themselves to a visually stunning film that looks like a backing piece for Blade Runner 2049 – Villeneuve’s other ambitious science-fiction film. While this one puts less emphasis on the lighting and overall black aesthetic of the Blade runner, he compensates with broad outlook and an equal emphasis on mood and scale. Shot by Greig Fraser, there is oppression in a lot of DunePaul’s makeup reflects Paul’s struggle to move beyond everyone’s expectations of him. The production design helps with this as well, surrounding each house in brutalist architecture and the planet of Arrakis itself forcing the Atreides house inside into the dimly lit rooms out of the sun.
At the bottom of the show is the relationship between Paul and his parents and their separate plans for him. This is where the film finds its heart. It is only when Paul sets foot on the sands of Arrakis that he seems to have autonomy over himself. A lot of Dune is shot close to the faces of the characters, often because they are alone in a room or feel separated from those around them. Leto and Jessica’s relationship is almost entirely told visually, with the two rarely speaking to each other and yet seeming to love each other completely and completely.
Then there are the relationships that Paul has with so many other characters. As royalty, he doesn’t really have more friends than he has close ties to allies. Jason Momoa’s first appearance as Duncan Idaho immediately establishes the close relationship he and Paul have, even though he’s also Paul’s combat instructor. Every character that Paul interacts with immediately feels like there is a life of camaraderie, although he can be kept away from the more serious discussions surrounding his life.
Dune Also works great because not only does each character feel lived in and end up feeling meaningful: they’re also played by extremely charismatic actors who do so much in the role. The entire supporting cast is stacked with actors all delivering great performances. From Stephen McKinley Henderson to Josh Brolin to David Dastmalchian and Dave Bautista to Javier Bardem and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, there are so many fantastic performances that all lend themselves completely to Villeneuve’s vision.
These are just the supporting cast, all of which give themselves away as though they could never remake a movie like this ever again. Not only is the film’s cast true to Herbert’s novel, they elevate the importance of everything in it. Nothing is just a role to be fulfilled. It is a character that must be lived. Not to mention the two most important roles in the film, Paul and Jessica. Chalamet isn’t quite revealing as Paul, but he fits the role perfectly and does a fantastic job carrying a film that relies heavily on introspection and carrying the burden that others have placed on him.
It’s really when Dune begins to explore Lady Jessica and begins to take an interest in her character where the film’s cast MVP stands. Rebecca Ferguson is a powerhouse in this, making Jessica a fierce and independent woman, able to operate with as much precision in the shadows as in the light. She can juggle between the most moving sequences and those that require her to be brutal and royal at the same time. This is arguably his best performance in a career that has already seen many great roles greatly augmented by his presence.
The key to Dune is that it depends on his humanity, so even though the sci-fi and fantasy elements are there and done right, he makes sure the characters never feel like “we need an evil henchman” which gives Dune his power. The stakes are just as real for one person as they are for the other. Loss is loss no matter who is involved. It is easy to follow the fate of each character as they are related in one way or another. This is evident in the recurring idea in House Atreides of the desire to do good when the world seems to be working against you and the attempt to be yourself when outside forces are pushing you into a role.
Unfortunately, the downside to everything with Dune it’s that it doesn’t end in a way that will be most narratively satisfying. This is the first part of a series planned in two parts. Where that leaves it, there are a lot of loose threads that will be fun to pick up with a character who makes a meaningful choice in the end that will define their whole being. Throughout the film, there’s no way that it will seem complete, but there’s no better way to end a first part than where it is.
At the end of the day, Dune is a triumph. It builds a world and ties together so many narrative threads and characters that it’s mind-boggling to see how well it works. There’s a whole universe to explore, but Villeneuve manages to let it invade you and fully immerse the audience in its political and religious foundations. It’s hard to call it his best movie when there are so many unfinished stories in the air, but it’s certainly its biggest achievement in almost every way. The second part cannot come soon enough.